A Perspective

For the first 150 years of the republic, the exact measurements of Thomas Jefferson’s wall between church and state had not been thoroughly tested in courts. That began to change in the 1940s when the Supreme Court made it clear that the Jeffersonian wall was high and impregnable. By the mid-1960s, organized prayer and Bible reading were gone from public schools, and in 1973, the Supreme Court, in overturning all state abortion laws, sent out a seismic shock that registered high on the scale of moral outrage. Later in the decade, the homosexual-rights ordinances that began appearing around the country further galvanized conservative Christians. Even many liberal churches that accept abortion balk at the thought of homosexuality as only an alternative lifestyle, because of the clear biblical injunction against the practice.

It is in Reagan Republicanism that conservative Christians found hope and muscle to begin pushing traditional values back toward the center of public life. But to the extent that this wing of Christendom identifies itself with one political party, it enters terrain that has been treacherous to the church. Billy Graham found it wiser to downplay his relationship with incumbent Presidents after Nixon and Watergate. Jerry Falwell has confused some fundamentalists by locking arms with unbelievers in his role as Moral Majoritarian, while at the same time he preaches against unbelief from the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church. This fall, fundamentalist leaders are entangling themselves in partisan politics to an unprecedented degree.

Just Another Constitutency?

There is no doubt that Christians are viewed by Republican party strategists as a constituency, categorized with the likes of labor, business, and minorities. With their blessing, President Reagan boldly frames the political alternatives: his own “hope, confidence, and growth,” rather than “pessimism, fear, and limits.”

But political boldness cloaked in religious rhetoric exacts a price that the party has already begun to pay. Today’s ascendant conservatives, many of them religiously minded, jostle for position with established party traditionalists; and a vocal minority of moderates and liberals within the party insist that their approach adheres more closely to the heritage of Abraham Lincoln.

“Establishment” party leaders, including George Bush, Robert Dole, and Howard Baker, will still be a force when Reagan is gone. They, like the more conservative Republicans, believe governmental intrusion into private life should be minimal, but they apply this across the board, to moral issues as well as to free-market economics.

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Barry Goldwater typifies the uneasiness of party veterans. In 1981, his pique over the militancy of the right-to-life movement surfaced. Falwell, along with many other prolife leaders, suggested that “every good Christian” should oppose Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court because she did not make her views on abortion public. Goldwater’s response, on behalf of his fellow Arizonian, was that “every good Christian” should kick Falwell in the seat of the pants. (As it turned out, the Religious Right would have lost a valuable judicial voice had O’Connor’s nomination not been ratified. Falwell has since retracted his opposition to O’Connor’s appointment.)

Mixing religion and politics, Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) says, is like putting nitroglycerin in a Waring blender. Weicker formed a Senate “gang of six” and tried unsuccessfully to ambush New Right activists who controlled the party’s platform committee. He is disturbed by what he sees as a portrayal of the GOP as “God’s Own Party.”

One conservative senator’s aide said, “We’re playing a game of right and wrong, not Right and Left,” and that is indeed how the Right perceives the present political reality. They intend to create a social environment, according to this aide, that does nothing less than “widen the path of salvation.”

Caricature Of The Gospel

The heart of political campaigning is the 30-second spot, the bumper-sticker slogan, and the quotable one-liner. There is little room for thorough examination of positions or for thoughtful debates that are not media events. When Christian principles are sucked into the process, as they are this year, what often emerges is a caricature of the gospel.

In an essay in Religious Broadcasting, Tim LaHaye, chairman of the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV), says Reagan’s 1980 victory happened because “Our Heavenly Father looked down and saw our plight. He saw thousands of us working diligently to awaken his sleeping church to its political responsibilities and He gave us four more years to perpetuate religious freedom.”

He claims that if “liberals” gain control of the White House and Congress, “it will be all over for free elections by 1988.” Another adamantly right-wing group, Christian Voice, placed a full-page advertisement in the Republican National Convention program. Calling itself “America’s largest Christian-conservative coalition,” Christian Voice claims to hold the “key” to 45 million evangelical Christians. It distributed a pre-election brochure, “Why Christians Are for Reagan.”

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In contrast, the media don’t often report statements by Christians with a more balanced perspective. Asbury Theological Seminary president David L. McKenna, for instance, stated strongly in United Evangelical Action magazine, the voice of the National Association of Evangelicals, why Christians must not be considered a monolithic voting bloc.

The party’s platform committee did not get this breadth of perspective as it prepared to write its document. It was led to believe that school prayer and abortion were the top two issues for American Christians, but a 1984 leaders poll conducted by the Evangelical Newsletter showed that evangelical leaders, as a group, are deeply concerned about a range of personal and social moral matters.

Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, a leading Republican moderate, was amazed to learn of the existence of the Christian Legal Society, which opposed President Reagan’s school prayer amendment in favor of equal access legislation. Other groups keep a low profile, such as the National Association of Evangelicals, which emphasizes individualized political involvement because its four-million-member organization is politically diverse.

Theologian Carl F. H. Henry worries about the impact of hastily conceived Christian advocacy. “There are still too many evangelicals who think politics reduces to rallying behind one person, provoking confrontation, and getting media coverage. That’s too narrow a strip on which to venture permanent political change,” he says. But Christians ought to aim at raising the legitimate question of “what it means for a nation to be under God politically.” Settling for a “one-trip-plumber” approach, Henry says, “does not really probe the deeper question of the overall culture crisis.”

The Party Of Lincoln

Today’s conservative Christian leaders certainly are not the first to try to make a political impact (see the article by Mark Noll beginning on p. 20). During the Republican convention of 1864, a Methodist minister opened proceedings with what began as the Lord’s Prayer. About halfway through, he inserted a plea for the nominee, Abraham Lincoln: “Grant, O Lord, that the ticket here to be nominated may command a majority of the suffrages of the American people.”

Whether he was on God’s side or God was on his side, Lincoln won, a decade after the Republican party was born in Ripon, Wisconsin. Then, as now, tension between the party’s moral absolutists and political pragmatists was evident. Party organizers coalesced around a shared disdain for slavery, but they tended to be cautious “free-soilers,” opposed to the centralized economic power that slave labor afforded to states with plantation owners. They differed both in style and substance from the crusading abolitionists, who initially denounced the Republicans and nominated their own presidential candidate in 1860.

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Lincoln, articulating pragmatic (although not passionate) opposition to slavery, emerged as the young party’s best hope for holding together its factions. During its first 100 years, it controlled the presidency for 60 years, building a foundation of support among farmers, businessmen, and the middle class.

Decline set in with the Depression and the ascendancy of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To this day, many of Roosevelt’s initiatives remain federal fixtures, largely unchallenged even by conservatives as staunch as Reagan. George H. Mayer, in The Republican Party, says, “Like a groggy, bewildered football team, the Republicans never escaped from the shadow of their own goal posts” during those years. The party forfeited the support of minorities, trade unionists, and immigrants. Known as the “party of privilege,” it lost every election except two from 1932 to 1960.

The Republican Recovery

Torn by rivalry between the east coast establishment represented by Nelson Rockefeller, and conservatives in the West and Midwest, the party lapsed until the late 1940s. Its turnabout began with Congressman Richard Nixon’s investigation into Alger Hiss and the resultant crusade against communism. They managed to “convert public fear about communism into a winning issue against the Democrats,” historian Mayer writes.

This has reemerged, following decades of various versions of détente, as a key issue in 1984. Reagan drew the loudest cheers from Republican delegates when he reminded them that during his administration “not one inch of soil has fallen to the communists.” U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick opened the convention with a stern foreign policy lecture in which she referred to “the re-Stalinization of the Soviet Union.”

This unapologetic conservatism and sense of national destiny was foreshadowed by events of the early 1960s after the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower restored the party’s momentum. An attempt to draft Goldwater for President in 1960 ended when he withdrew his name and told delegates to go home and “earn the right to nominate a conservative.”

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They took him literally, and returned in four years with sufficient strength to field him as a candidate despite his popular depiction as an extremist on the fringe of the right wing. Even though he was beaten badly by Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater—and the winds of change that propelled him—had a lasting effect on Republicanism.

“The Republican party, after long domination by its relatively liberal eastern wing … had passed into the hands of a new management,” notes William A. Rusher, publisher of National Review, in his book The Rise of the Right. “Conservatism in 1960 was basically just a set of ideas. By 1965, it was a full-fledged political movement, ready to do battle for the leadership of America.”

Goldwater’s candidacy gave Ronald Reagan—host of the television program “G.E. Theater”—a chance to audition before the party and the nation with a taped speech in behalf of the nominee. Rusher observes that “fate has a curious way of hiding its pearls in the most unlikely places, and it outdid itself on this occasion.”

Like Lincoln, it is Reagan who holds together the party’s moderates and conservatives today. He has been a popular President, providing the country with a sense of direction and an air of confidence.

Four More Years?

What a second Reagan term would accomplish is a big question for the party as well as the electorate. With the burden of campaigning behind him for good, the President may move vigorously toward his unfulfilled 1980 promises to the New Right and harden his line against communism abroad. Or, the moderates hope, Reagan’s pragmatic political instincts might focus instead on reducing the federal budget deficit and getting down to business on arms negotiations with the Soviets. A large part of Reagan’s political genius involves his ability to offer genuine, persuasive assurances to both sides at once.

The party also is reaping the reward of Reagan’s ability to inspire and motivate political action among previously inactive conservatives, many of whom are Christians. Like Bob Sweet, they are responding to Reagan, not to Republicanism.

Sweet became alarmed about curriculum changes and educational experiments at the public school his children attended, so he ran for the school board in 1972. From that vantage point, a larger political vista came into focus. He attended a political workshop for Christians in 1975, which spoke for bipartisan political involvement. If Reagan had not appeared on the scene the following year, Sweet’s training session might have been forgotten. But he sensed something different about this long-shot, Sun Belt conservative. “Reagan represented the kind of moral integrity and moral leadership I believed was essential to the survival of this country,” Sweet says. “I believed he was genuine.”

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Post-Reagan Republicanism

Reagan’s biggest political talent is his ability to arouse a broad spectrum of the electorate by appealing to shared values at the same time he is cultivating party loyalty. This is the challenge Republicans face in their post-Reagan years. They realize that they also must reach for the support of new constituents and offer their own “new ideas” in response to future Democratic leadership that builds on what Gary Hart began this year.

New ideas in the party, even moderates admit, are coming from conservatives who call themselves “populists.” They are organized, prolific, and wise in the ways of mass-media exposure. In the House of Representatives, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich formed a Conservative Opportunity Society with fellow congressmen Jack Kemp and Vin Weber.

Gingrich is the intellectual, and the high-tech theorist of the Republican right wing. He told a platform subcommittee that public policy must move from “the geriatrics of the industrial age to the pediatrics of the information age.” He heralds the arrival of a new model of economic thought that has to be developed and articulated as America moves from being a welfare state to building an “opportunity society.”

“Our premise is that you can believe in left-wing ideology or you can believe in creating jobs,” he says, “but you cannot believe in both.” The old models for measuring society’s productivity and wealth no longer work, he has decided, because current economic growth, in his words, is a result of “human imagination, human spirit, and human commitment,” such as new applications of computer technology. “It becomes impossible to mathematically represent the forces which shape and dominate” the sort of society emerging today in the West.

While Gingrich’s vision is long-range, Jack Kemp gets down to particulars. In his foreword to a book titled Completing the Revolution, Kemp named voluntary prayer in schools, the right to life, human rights in Eastern Europe, and a simplified and reduced tax rate as key elements the “populists” will promote. Other issues will be affordable housing, urban enterprise zones to put inner-city poor to work, and modernized, streamlined armed forces as a better deterrent.

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As this year’s Republican platform took shape, it was Kemp and company who cajoled committee members to write it their way. Kemp strode purposefully through the Dallas Convention Center halls, popping up at one subcommittee hearing after another to give a rapid-fire defense of these positions. Without exception, they prevailed in the platform.

The ‘Threat From The Right’

In the wake of the Watergate setback, during the respite of the Carter years, the party had time to regroup and build a massive national organization.

Its formal party structure includes the Republican National Committee (RNC) and two committees promoting the election of Republican senators and representatives. These three groups raised $93.3 million in 1983, compared with $16.4 million raised by the Democrats.

Republican fund raising relies on direct mail appeals and gifts from major donors, while the Democrats rely on “special interest” money from their diverse constituencies. Chief among the conservative fund raisers is Richard A. Viguerie, publisher of Conservative Digest, a staunch anti-Communist, and frequent critic of Reagan compromises with moderates and liberals. Twenty million names dot the disks of Viguerie’s computer, yielding multiple millions of dollars. This year, Republicans will be the chief beneficiaries of Viguerie’s hard work, but in Dallas, on network television, both George Bush and Robert Dole denounced Viguerie by name for seeking to influence the party while not even enrolling as a Republican. They are uneasy because Viguerie threatens frequently to outflank the party on the right by forming a new, populist coalition, and his threats are taken seriously. He could siphon away substantial numbers of newly registered and politically active citizens.

Viguerie rails against the “elitism” of the establishment. All Americans want their government doing, he says, is “defending the shores, building the roads, catching the criminal, and educating the young.” He is disappointed that Reagan has not narrowed the scope of federal government far more radically. Viguerie maintains very close ties with right-wing religious organizations involved in politics, and counts “conservative Christians and Jews” among those who could be persuaded to abandon the current party system.

This sort of sniping from outside the party’s perimeter deeply offends the activist Republican moderates and accounts, in large measure, for their efforts to get organized this year. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), head of the liberal Ripon Society, founded a “Republican Mainstream Committee” to counter what he calls “politics for profit.” Leach strenuously objects to massive, emotional direct mail appeals that “tear apart the decency that holds our society together.”

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He wrote in a “mainstream manifesto” that “many of the issues of the New Right social agenda represent political opportunism rather than historical Republicanism. We must make it clear we are a party of individual rights rather than socialized values.”

Leach and a handful of others support “philosophical decentralization.” On abortion, for example, he says government should be strictly neutral. He believes government should “neither fund it nor preclude it by constitutional amendment or statute,” and he terms this “a classic position that has no friends.” Moderates also support the Equal Rights Amendment, emphasize civil rights, and back a nuclear freeze.

Above all, though, they are pragmatists, and that helps explain why they solidly back the Reagan-Bush ticket. They tend to take a long view, believing that the pendulum of party consensus will swing their way eventually. For the most part, they retain a good-humored perspective: Maryland Sen. Charles Matthias said “Swimming upstream is good exercise.”

The question the Republicans are so fond of asking the voters—Are you better off now than you were four years ago?—is likely to be asked interally as party leaders and challengers search for a flexible yet cohesive mix of program and principle. Staying conservative enough to prevent an outside threat from the Right, and moderate enough not to disenchant pragmatic leaders, is not easy.

It is made more difficult because of the tension between the historically Republican desire for individual autonomy and the restoration of traditional values, which demands that the federal government intrude into private affairs. But that intrusiveness, the conservatives contend, is necessary only because the federal government has intruded in the past to efface those values. School prayer and abortion would not be hot debates if local school districts had not been sued for their time-honored custom of class prayers or if abortion had not been legalized by the Supreme Court.

There is no question that the values debate will be around for some time, and it will be fought out squarely in the middle of the political arena. For many evangelicals, it is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar feeling to have their deepest values bruited about by strident spokesmen of both Right and Left. But the mere fact that the debate is here may be the surest evidence that the country has not yet passed into the “post-Christian era” many have prophesied. As the election campaign of 1984 shows, the forced removal of Judeo-Christian values from public life is not a given, and thousands have become active to ensure that it does not happen. Their success has yet to be determined, but if the Christian activist can keep the gospel itself separate from political views that emanate from its varied applications, that alone will be a certain victory.

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